Friday, May 30, 2014

Friday Fricassee

Happy Friday!

So here's something I'd love to hear your thoughts on today:

In a first draft of my current WIP, I killed off one of the main supporting characters.  I actually cried when I did it, because it was painful.  That's a good sign, really--if it made ME cry, then it should impact readers. Right?

Except, it feels wrong to have him dead.  And I think that, because he is a main supporting character, it might be more upsetting than moving to have him die.  So right now, as I revise, I'm seeing if I can make this work without his death.  There's still a very hard choice involved, and still lots of tension (especially the not-knowing whether he's going to make it or not), but in the end, I think I will feel more peaceful if he lives.

Others die, so it's not a case of my avoiding killing off characters.  I do that with aplomb, as necessary.  *grin*

So, what do you think?  Is there a RIGHT and a WRONG time to kill off a character?  Have you ever struggled with whether or not to kill someone off?

Please help me through this by sharing your own experiences!

37 comments:

  1. I think sometimes killing off a character - especially if it's traumatic - can benefit the work: think of Titanic or Buffy killing Angel (Sorry, couldn't come up with good book references). On the other hand, if it leaves a bad taste in your mouth, then don't do it. After all, you don't want another Wash!

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  2. Sometimes killing off a supporting character is important, if and only if it moves the storyline forward, or results in character development for your protagonist.

    On the other hand, literature, (not to mention film and TV) is full of successful series that have gone for years without killing off anyone except minor characters or "redshirts."

    I have a rule when I'm driving a car. If you are wondering even a little bit if you should put on the headlights, then you do.

    If it's bothering you at all that a character's been killed, don't do it.

    Heck, you can always kill him in the next book, but it's hard to bring a dead guy back (of course, they managed it with Angel in "Buffy").

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  3. I have a main character that I thought all along will die at the end. But the more I work on my second draft the more I think that the final message will be so bleak and depressing if he dies that readers will walk away with a negative feeling about the novel. And since I write to entertain people and I don't want my message to be so dark, I'm thinking I'll give him a reprieve. Change his life, but let him live. In the end I just can't kill him...

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  4. My rule of thumb is don't kill off characters just for the sake of doing it (e.g., to shock readers, just to create tension, etc.). But if it's necessary to tell the story I want to tell, don't hold back, even if it hurts.

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  5. How about you don't kill him, but have him suffer some permanent disability, disfigurement -- something he's not just going to shrug off and walk away from. How will this trauma impact him, change him, impact those around him and their relationship with him? How will this impact your plot?

    Suffering characters make for more interesting reading than dead ones (unless, you know, they're suffering undead characters).

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  6. My 11-year old daughter cried so hard when Crane Man died in a Single Shard (as did I). It seemed so cruel, but then she and I talked about it and we decided that it really was necessary to the story. Tree-Ear would not have been able to move forward in his life -- he loved Crane Man too much -- and he needed a life where he didn't have to forage for food and where he'd have a safe, comfortable place to lay his head down every night. Death can be hard for young readers, but if it's necessary to the story it needs to happen. I still can't read Where the Red Fern Grows though again, and that was a dog.

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  7. So, I created this character who's death was supposed to jump-start the mystery. Yes, well, I liked her so much, one hundred pages later she was still hanging around, fighting the protagonist for attention. I finally had to kill the entire story.

    Going back to the fundamental premise of comedy vs. tragedy, in a tragedy, the noble character makes a moral choice that leads to his own demise. Consider whether your character has made that kind of inevitable choice. If so, knock him off. Readers won't like it (ala Dumbledore), but they will understand that his own actions caused his death.

    Don't kill off a good character just to elicit emotion in the reader. They will feel cheated and manipulated because there is no logic behind the death.

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  8. I actively look for characters that are disposable, because I like to preserve people when I can. Like if I can get away with maiming them I will. If it doesn't feel right to you, don't do it. I felt like in Harry Potter that too many people died. I obviously still like the books and I'm not mad at her, but when authors kill people off in the name of being realistic, it can be kind of irritating.

    I was struggling with this on Wednesday. It actually might be kind if traumatizing if I kill this character, and ultimately, their death won't serve a purpose, so I'm going to try and keep them alive.

    So that's what I asked myself. Is there a point, can I do without it, will the plot and characters be better or worse for it?

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  9. I read the first of Veronica Roth's Divergent series way back when it first came out. I'm not the biggest fan of dystopia, so after the first one, I wasn't compelled to read the other two. Then, when the third book came out and there was such an uproar about it, I felt I had to read it because I was so curious. I had a feeling I knew what had happened (based on all the reactions I'd heard), but I wanted to make sure I was right.

    I reread the first one, then read the other two, and discovered I was right. But unlike most people, I wasn't upset. I actually LIKED what happened. I thought it was fitting. I thought it made sense and fit with the rest of the story. I don't think there was any other way to end that well. I'm sure there are people who disagree with me. Actually, I know there are.

    I'm all for killing off main characters when it makes sense, when it fits. Still, I know most people DON'T like it. Ultimately, I think it's the writer's choice, not what the writer thinks the readers would want. It's best, I think, to go with your gut.

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  10. To allow this death or not depends on your style, genre, and target audience.

    Part of what I respond to well as a reader is the crossover of very real-life emotional struggles in fiction.

    The discomfort you feel as the writer is manifested in how your cast deals with this loss. It may become an ongoing part of how they respond to the world and each other as they confront future challenges.

    Emotional integrity is crucial to excellent storytelling.

    Before you decide to go for the comfortable, live with the discomfort---it may not be easy, but it may provide a depth in your writing you've never experienced and may want to keep.

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  11. Of course, there are times that killing off a character makes sense and is the best way to tell the story. However, when it's not it can backfire on you. Once, I was reading a book in which an important character was killed off unexpectedly and it felt so wrong to me that, in disgust, I simply stopped reading the book.

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  12. I write epic fantasy, and as you might expect, there are a number of battles, so yes, I've had to dispatch characters, even some I've come to love in a short period of time.

    I think that's good because it ups the stakes for the MC. Now readers know not all is going to turn up strawberries and cream in this series. It increases tension, I think.

    At the same time, however, toward the end I have a character die and I think I'm going to change it (unpublished, so I can). I read something somewhere that made me realize a character needs to die for a story reason, not because the author wants him dead.

    I think the death at the end may not be fully motivated by the story events, but I'm not sure. Anyway, that's my new rule of thumb: does the story require this character has to die?

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  13. Death is punctuation--it's the period after a fully-realized life sentence, or it's the dash that drives a character's impact into the next scene.

    After saying that, I wrote a very long comment in response, and your comment box won't take it, so looky-look! Here's a link to where you can read the whole comment, if you want. = P

    http://petrepan.blogspot.com/2014/05/when-is-it-right-to-kill-off-character.html

    It's how I decide deaths, and of course I could be totally wrong, so yeah. Disclaimer-ing.

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  14. I killed off what appeared to be a main character pretty much near the beginning, but it was necessary for the story. That's the main question, I'd guess.

    (Aside: I drowned him. Then my readers told me it's common for a female writer to drown their victims. Hmm. Later bodies fell by other means.)

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  15. In the only adult book I've ever written, I always knew the anti-hero and second VP character would die at the end. I "knew" exactly how I wanted the book to end.

    Then I started writing it and I fell in love with my Lucas. And I couldn't kill him. I didn't go with the ending I'd envisioned for like five years.

    And looking back, the new ending is a weak ending compared to my original. If I ever revisit that manuscript, I think I will change the ending to the original. Hopefully the many years in-between will have weakened my love :)

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  16. Try to surprise the audience. Have him do a 007 James Bond fake death and then he comes back in a later scene. Surprise!!!!!

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  17. Death is part of life. If killing a main character fits the circumstances of your story and is not just a contrivance to make your readers cry, then do what needs to be done.

    In one of my books, the main character would not have moved forward unless her father died. He was her shield and her advocate and would have prevented the actions she took. His death allowed the rest of the story to develop. I loved the father, but the story needed the catalyst of his death.
    The family mourned him, and his funeral allowed a natural meeting of two people who would otherwise have been unlikely to do so.
    I'm not sure I like some of the previous comments about maiming or injuring a main character. Death is one way of having a character leave a story, but I would urge caution about a violent injury that doesn't flow from the story line.
    It's your story. Perhaps let it sit a few weeks, read it again, make a decision after you've had a bit of distance.

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  18. Bad experience with character death: reading the Divergent trilogy.

    Sometimes it feels like you have to kill off a character to be a serious writer. Harry Potter set that mold. But you don't have to, even when cause of death is available (think Frodo); or you can even bring him/her back to life (Gandalf). Let the story tell you what to do, instead of feeling the need to "serious-it-up" with a death.

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  19. I'm facing a similar tricky dilemma - killed off a main character in ch. 3 (his secrets still propel the plot after death) - but following some feedback from agents about pacing and characterization, I'm tentatively resurrecting him - i.e. he faked his death.

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  20. I think there are two things to consider: (1) leading up to the death and (2) after the death. Most people have commented on #1, so let me tackle #2.

    Whether or not I’m sad when a particular character is knocked off, two trends drive me crazy after the character dies. On one hand, people dismiss the character too easily. My quintessential literary example is Elaine in the King Arthur stories. When Lancelot is injured, Elaine nurses him back to health and falls in love with them. Then Lancelot runs off to Guinevere, and Elaine is so heartsick that she wastes away and dies. Her funeral barge floats down a river, Lancelot and the court says, “Alas!”… and then the plot moves on. It’s like Elaine was never there. What’s the point of introducing her and killing her off if it doesn’t impact the story?

    On the opposite hand, the main character treats the death as a critical, defining moment… for himself. The death becomes a symbol, an impetus that pushes the main character to do whatever they couldn’t do before. It’s like the death is only meaningful for the main character.

    If you’re going to kill off a secondary character, give the deceased the proper respects. Their death should be meaningful for them, as well as for the main character. The secondary character is, after all, a person (or sometimes an animal or AI or something). Their death is not a plot device but a death, with all the messiness and emotion and logistics that go along with it.

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